Sunday, July 5, 2015

Back to the way it was: February 2015 albums

I've had this written for you-don't-wanna-know-how-long, and kept putting off gathering the album covers from the Net, then this morning I started wondering why I even do that; the links end up being broken eventually anyway, it seems. You don't need album covers to enjoy or be somewhat informed by these writeups, right? Good, good, let's keep moving then.

K. Michelle: Anybody Wanna Buy a Heart? (Atlantic)
"Drake would love me," yeah, probably. Despite a few early moments of sparkling, synth-heavy production, this is schmaltzy, shrill R&B that doesn't harness Michelle's appealingly nuanced, raspy, Mary Wells-like voice the way it potentially could, nor the momentum of the decent single "Love 'Em All." The parts about weed are best.

Kaki King: Junior (Rounder 2010)
I have come increasingly to feel that King is one of the all-time great guitarists, and one of the very few capable of filling out an entertaining album with nothing but her own noodling and improvisations. This is therefore easily the oddest specimen in her catalog by virtue of its being atypically conventional, a weird, breathy Cold War concept album with songs about Russian spies, Pasternak references and musical thematics lifted from various espionage movies of the '60s. There is a gorgeous, classic KK instrumental ("Sloan Shore"), and yet the remainder gleans so little depth from its relatively far-ranging influences and ideas that it ends up blending even more than usual with the "musical wallpaper" notion associated with what was once called Beautiful Music. King is to be applauded for stretching, but her gifts -- and gifts for consistency -- lie elsewhere.

D'Angelo: Black Messiah (RCA) [A+ (originally hr)]
This stunning, sprawling heap of hardened, difficult R&B is intricate, detailed, subtle, addictive, even inscrutable, and absolutely brilliant. (My favorite Marvin Gaye record is Here, My Dear, in case you're wondering which you weren't after that sentence.) Every listen seems to push one further into its paranoid, troubling murk and redemptive sensuality. It's worthy of James Brown, George Clinton or Prince at peak, and its racial and social consciousness -- its feeling of an important act that is happening right now -- gives you some whiff of what it might have been like to live and work in the real age of those titans. This is an album of the ominous, chaotic moment, maybe the only one. Not one of its songs is as satisfying as the entire package, but not one of its songs is incomplete or weak; the package simply ebbs, flows, intensifies as a whole. The funk album of the century.

Avey Tare: Down There (Paw Tracks) [c]
The Animal Collective phenomenon already seems silly enough with hindsight to make onetime deriders somewhat more sympathetic to their cause, but my low tolerance for QUIRKY VOCALZZ keeps me from hearing anything in this.

Mark Ronson: Uptown Special (Columbia) [c]
"White Gold," eh? Sounds like a DJ who spins nothing but various volumes of Now! That's What I Call Music.

John Coltrane: Africa/Brass (Impulse! 1961) [A+]
Coltrane's first album on his famously lucrative contract with the then-fledgling Impulse! is, perhaps more than any of the other LPs issued in his lifetime, the palpable sound of sustainable artistic freedom. Its centerpiece is an otherworldly but wonderfully familiar take on "Greensleeves," demonstrating how -- with one of the loveliest melodies ever written at his disposal -- the master was so adept at toying infinitely with simple chords and melodies, working and twisting out into the sublime. But the two originals are propulsive and alight with fire, chaos and beauty -- and beauty perverted -- all at once. This featured Coltrane's largest band and some of the most unusual instrumentation featured on a jazz record of this period, including Garvin Bushell's woodwinds and Bill Barger's splendidly incongruous tuba; the orchestrations by Eric Dolphy, adapted from McCoy Tyner, are dissonant, evocative, wholly immersive. The secret weapon here is drummer Elvin Jones, however, who brings these lofty sounds back to an earthy bliss. The record's still-potent liveliness is astounding.

Jazmine Sullivan: Reality Show (RCA) [r]
Solid, varied R&B record with stern attitude and unique voice. An auspicious return to a still-fraught, intense scene.

J.B. Hutto and His Hawks: Hawk Squat! (Delmark 1968) [r]
Danceable electric blues from South Carolina by way of the Chicago '50s scene is certainly a reflection of the brief mainstream popularity of electric blues, and there's no mistaking its populist appeal. Hutto has a bite of eccentricity, something that keeps him from blending in to the 12-bar wallpaper, and this comeback session is a solid, engaging evening with a rowdy monster.

Viet Cong (Jagjaguwar) [c]
"Alternative" "rock".

Ayub Ogada: En Mana Kuoyo (Real World 1993) [hr]
Stunningly beautiful, instantly appealing folk music from Kenyan singer-songwriter Ogada, whose vocals more than mildly resemble Nick Drake; at the very least, he's second to Alexi Murdoch in the Drake soundalike contest. The vibe is accessible (the record comes from Peter Gabriel's label) and low-key and it's hardly a monument of innovation, rather of the universal appeal of restraint: it's mostly just Ogada's voice and the nyatiti, which offers a lovely combination of the warm and the unique. The mood, occasional injections of variance via layered vocals and woodwinds, and subtle tones of lyrical unrest make it universal. I don't like to be one of the constant advocates of the slicker, quieter, less abrasive side of East Africn music, but good is good.

Sleater-Kinney: No Cities to Love (Sub Pop) [r]
Songs are only here and there but it's fun to hear them play them. Were it anyone else, it might not seem so weighty.

The Decemberists: What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World (Capitol) [c]
A band whose work was once so full of wit seems to have slowly shed it piece by piece; the warning sign was probably when so many of the richest, most satisfying and singular songs from the Crane Wife cycle were left off that release. Still, The King Is Dead suggested maturity and a future for Colin Meloy as a Nashville factory songwriter. This new record, though, is a strange leap into the adult contemporary abyss that seems hard to justify as the follow-up to a commercial breakthrough (but then, so did the Avett Brothers' last few albums; so does the work of just about every band that switches to a major label), and my best guess is that a hiatus due to Jenny Conlee's cancer treatments dimmed their focus. Cleverness, however self-conscious it sometimes was, has been replaced with cutesiness and syrup that call to mind Wild Life-era Wings. Meloy reveals how easy it is for even a dynamic, distinctive frontman to become a total nuisance. The Decemberists' audience might skew slightly mid-forties hipster at this point, but they seem to be bidding for office Muzak mostly, a curious fate for several other '00s folk-rockers like Iron & Wine and Band of Horses as well. The moments that stand out only do so in their wrongheadedness; annoying jaunty backing vocals, songs that sound routinely as stupid as barrel-scraping R.E.M. numbers like "Wanderlust" and "Shiny Happy People," and on the cut that provides the album's title, a surprisingly crass sentiment from someone so allegedly sensitive as Meloy. He wrote it in the days after the Sandy Hook massacre; it's about the contrast between the grief being felt by the parents of the dead children then with Meloy's own placid happiness as a father. In other words, it's essentially a humble brag about one's child being alive, undoubtedly well-intentioned but just another sign of how aloof a very popular band can quickly become, and how fast my generation's indie rock as a whole has faded hopelessly out of touch as it ascends to messy middle age.

The Damned: Damned Damned Damned (Stiff 1977) [hr]
Cited frequently as the first-ever UK punk band, a statistic that becomes harder to define and more meaningless with each passing year, the Damned have never had quite the international audience or legendary cachet of the Clash, the Sex Pistols or even Australian counterpart the Saints. But the claim Damned Damned Damned can lay down that's nearly unique in its era is that, beyond its association with any particular movement, it's a truly brazen piece of timeless rock & roll fuck-all, fast and furious in the vein of the Stooges -- whose "1970" is memorably covered herein -- but with ample devilish wit to match. It's an absolute shot of pulp joy that hasn't grown old with time, and its two signature singles "Neat Neat Neat" and "New Rose" (with its glorious opening echo of the Shangri-Las) can still pump up and blow apart a middling evening. But in contrast to Never Mind the Bollocks, the rest of it lives up to its peaks; the cascading, furious "I Fall" might be their very best song, and "So Messed Up" is Ramones-worthy. Taken together it's all so clear and full and complete, when punk was serious in its irreverence, focused and deeply inventive.

Belle & Sebastian: Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance (Matador)
Having conquered seemingly two disparate career paths for the same band, Stuart Murdoch's current endeavor takes them to the dance floor, sort of. And yet, as on Write About Love, he's best when he plays to / remembers his strengths. Aside from the songs that really extrapolate into miniature but extensive dramas, the work here largely seems too cute and lacking in tangible emotion. Much like Stephin Merritt's later work, what we're hearing is the career twilight of someone for whom this has simply become too easy. Murdoch could write most of this with one eye open, his band could play it with both shut, and the stylistic toying is just costume jewelry. We're less bored than he is, but we can tell he's bored and it's tragic.

Al Green: I'm Still in Love with You (Hi 1972) [hr]
This is one hell of a subtle record; having long loved Green's singles I've only just in the last couple of years started to process his albums in order, which has been an excellent experience I wish I'd taken on with more artists (and probably will down the line). Pretending this was a new release, thus ignoring the inescapable fame and power of its several hits, I was initially disappointed that the album seemed dialed back, painstakingly smooth, even soppy at times. But each revisit reveals the tension and power lurking in songs that never make their sensual longings as initially explicit as they finally are. Thinking at first that it was the least of his first three Hi albums, I now would say it's the best. And the "Oh! Pretty Woman" cover is Wilson Pickett-worthy. But of course the singles leap triumphantly over all. Is the best of the bunch the ubiquitous title cut, which revises but amplifies "Let's Stay Together"? The teasing "Look What You Done for Me"? No way. The champion is the strangest, most hardline and brutal of the bunch -- the hard, pleading, possibly mildly sarcastic "Love and Happiness." That the album retains the vibe of its most beloved inclusions without ever growing repetitive or dull is just one of the treasured revelations it's hiding.

Pond: Man It Feels Like Space Again (Caroline)
Annoying Grizzly Bear-lite stuff.

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